Earlier this year, we brought you the story of Judge Rae Lee Chabot, a state court judge in Michigan. Judge Chabot was accused of taking three-hour lunch breaks and long shopping trips to the Gap, in the middle of the workday.
I wrote in defense of Judge Chabot, whose judicial work was well-regarded despite her, ummm, flexible work schedule. I opined that “[a]s long as a judge is reasonably current with his docket, he should be left alone. There is no face-time requirement for judges.”
But even I would have a hard time defending the latest judicial diva under fire, Judge Maryesther Merlo of Allentown District Court in Pennsylvania. Judge Merlo — or make that ex-judge Merlo, since she just got removed from the bench — allegedly missed 116 days of work, from September 2007 to December 2009. That amounts to over 23 weeks, in a period of about two years.
And that’s not all Maryesther Merlo stands accused of. Her treatment of defendants appearing before her may have strayed beyond the merely tough into the downright rude….
Here’s the story, from the Allentown Morning Call:
Allentown District Judge Maryesther Merlo has been permanently removed from the bench by the state disciplinary court that earlier this year found her chronic absenteeism, tardiness and bizarre behavior were violations of the rules of conduct for district judges and the state Constitution. Removal from office, a sanction handed down to Pennsylvania district judges only five other times in the last decade, is the most severe available in the Court of Judicial Discipline.
Yup, that’s pretty harsh. According to the Morning Call, the last Pennsylvania judge who was booted from the bench, Bradford Timbers, was removed from office “for showing up to court drunk, using profanity in court, and patting a secretary’s buttocks.” Nice.
Represented by her attorney, Samuel Stretton of West Chester, Judge Merlo contested the charges before the disciplinary panel. And what charges they were:
Merlo had a habit of calling out of work when dozens of hearings were scheduled and litigants, police and attorneys were assembled in her courtroom, her staff testified [during a three-day trial before a three-judge panel in Philadelphia]. According to the [disciplinary panel's] decision, Merlo missed 116 days of work from September 2007 to December 2009.
Merlo’s explanation that her absences were excused because she never took vacation was belied by the fact she took 49 days of vacation during the period at issue, the court said. Merlo also reasoned that her absences were excusable because she was required to campaign for re-election and took time off during the week to do so.
Presumably her colleagues, also elected judges, were able to run for re-election without taking this much time off. If you combine the 116 missed days with the 49 vacation days, you’re looking at 165 days off — a staggering 33 weeks (or roughly 8 months) away from work, during a little more than two years. Even the French don’t have it that good.
And it seems that Judge Merlo’s time away from chambers had adverse consequences for the administration of justice:
As a result of her absences, her staff spent much of their time dealing with a backlog of paperwork, rescheduling hearings and attempting to calm angry parents who had taken off work for truancy hearings, according to testimony. On one occasion, Merlo’s last-minute cancellation of truancy hearings caused a near riot in the lobby of her court, a staff member testified.
On the other hand, given what Judge Merlo was like when she was actually on the bench, query whether litigants should be clamoring for her presence. Here are more allegations from the panel opinion, via the Morning Call:
The decision also described Merlo’s bizarre treatment of defendants and attorneys. In one case, she referred to a juvenile defendant in a traffic case as a “dog who needed to be retrained,” and in another, told an assistant district attorney to “shut up” and attempted to fine her for contempt.
Well, just to play devil’s advocate, is telling someone to “shut up” in court really that bad? Chief Judge Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit did just that recently — not even to a litigant, but to an esteemed colleague.
For her part, Maryesther Merlo disputes the charges and plans to appeal her removal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She takes the position that removal was an excessive punishment for her alleged conduct.
Maybe the Pennsylvania justices will reinstate Judge Merlo but send her to anger-management or civility classes. Who’s the “dog who needs to be retrained” now?
Allentown’s Judge Merlo removed from bench [Allentown Morning Call]
Pennsylvania Judge Banned from Bench for Absenteeism, Rude Remarks [ABA Journal]